By Jim McCarthy Jul 6, 2010 2 comments

Online Comments are as Bad as Hitler

As a person who’s been in the internet biz for, well, most of the existence of the internet biz, I’ve always been a big fan of open systems of review and comment.  In fact, here at Goldstar, we built the world’s first review system for live entertainment, and comments appear unedited and in real-time.

So for me, discussions of user comments and reviews are always interesting, including this one I came across on the PBS site. In it, Kenneth Baker, an arts critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, says “Fortunately, most reactive responses, the negative sort, are easily dismissed because…people haven’t seen what they purport to be talking about, and I have.”

Baker goes on to say that he doesn’t read online comments on his stories at all because they are the “lowest common denominator” and “don’t call for a response.”

I’m going to shock some of you when I say that I agree with much of what Baker is saying here.  Not that I don’t believe in the value of “crowd sourced” commentary, but when it’s not cultivated well, it does tend to devolve  into the realm of Godwin’s Law, wherein someone inevitably is compared unfavorably to Nazis or Hitler.  Along the way, there’s a lot of spurious and juvenile personal venom and people trying to get “burns” in on each other by picking on a specific choice of words or turn of phrase to prove their opponent’s Hitlerian nature.

It’s idiotic.  It’s also the clear gravitational pull of completely open-ended commentary on most of the Internet.  People call it ‘dialogue’ when it’s mostly just self-indulgence, a cheap way to feel superior to others with absolutely no requirement of introspection.

What to do?

Discussions have to be shaped.  People need to be given a purpose, and, yes, there should be ground rules for any given conversation.  Of course, if all you want is “conversation,” you can skip this step.  Some people really enjoy the jabber and think the hatefulness in support of different ideas is productive.  I don’t buy it.  You could get a lot farther a lot faster if you didn’t have people focused on winning unwinnable arguments.  After all, the other guy can always find a way to accommodate his own feeling of being better and more important than you.  And vice versa, naturally.

That’s a big part of the reason that the review system on Goldstar is A. just reviews of shows, and B. requires that you’ve actually bought tickets to the show and that the date you’ve bought has passed.  In other words, you’ve probably seen the show you’re talking about.  As a result, and because people generally enjoy their experiences, the reviews are frank, but focused on the topic at hand.

On our Facebook page, it’s a little different.  People do get into mild arguments about different things, and our process there is that if they get to be personal, we step in to say that we don’t mind lively discussions but that they should remember to treat each other with respect.  In fact, at this point, often times our Facebook fans do that for us.

Spend a few minutes watching this video, especially the first part, where Kenneth Baker is talking.  It reminds me a bit of something Seth Godin said a few weeks ago: “Not sure why you would want to reinforce the noise in your head that tells you not to speak up, stand out and do work that matters, but if you do, a surefire way to do it is to focus your attention on every piece of negative feedback in your environment. Or to imagine every possible disaster that could befall you, and to do it repeatedly. Or to carefully study anonymous comments, tweets and online reviews from people who don’t like the work you’re doing.”

I guess I’d put it this way. Respect feedback, but respect your work enough to give feedback only the respect it deserves. If it’s well thought out and informed, listen. If it’s unhinged ranting from a person who just likes to hear himself talk, it doesn’t deserve much respect and you can move on.

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